You Know You’re a Technical Communicator When…

The Formative Years

You know you’re a technical communicator when…

…as a kid at breakfast you arranged your Alpha-Bits into acronyms.

…you got hold of a Highlights magazine, and you flipped to “Find the Differences.” If the pictures had 14 differences, you found 15.

…your favorite Sesame Street song was “One of These Things Is Not Like the Other.” And right now, you’re thinking, one of these things just doesn’t belong.

…your notes to Santa included steps. And substeps.

…you touched the pictures in Reader’s Digest and expected something to happen.

…you scribbled in your books: “This connects to that! That connects to this and this—and this!”

…the neighborhood kids put on a play, and you wrote the scripts. You still have them. Brilliant use of white space.

…the neighborhood kids played Kick the Can, and you wondered how to hyphenate olly-olly-in-come-free. You argued with the new kid who said it was olly-olly-oxen-free.

…you once marked up a Bach two-part invention, labeling all the diatonic functions: I, i, ii, IV, V, vi, and vii. After that, no one else could play it. Hey, it was in pencil.

…people told you that you could stop asking questions now, and you said, “Why?”

…all through school, you were the kid everyone asked, “What did that mean?” Even the teacher.

The Professional Years

You know you’re a technical communicator when…

…you’ve caught yourself thinking, I can’t believe I get paid to do this.

…you went through a phase of saying wizzywig in every sentence.

…the first time you heard the term information architecture, you felt pangs.

…you put semantic tags around the items on your grocery list. <dairyaisle>cheese</dairyaisle>, <frozenfoods>ice cream</frozenfoods>…

…you keep rearranging the cans in your pantry: red labels together, vegetables together, big cans together, big cans of vegetables with red labels together.

…people talk about their jobs in user experience, content strategy, project management, business analysis, content marketing, knowledge-base management, or information mapping, and you say, “Yelmp. Been doing that for years.”

…you tell the SMEs what the acronyms mean.

…you think of SME as a word.

…you know the difference between acronyms, abbreviations, and initialisms.

…somebody shows you the latest tech toy—software, hardware, vaporware, any ware—and you go [pant, pant, pant].

…you wish that you had thought to smoosh together emotion and icon to make emoticon, or web and log to make blog. 

…you want to come up with the next word to make it into the OED.

…you’d rather be called a wordie than a foodie.

…you suggest the new edition of The Chicago Manual of Style to your book group.

…your Tweet runs one character too long, and you revise to keep all the punctuation.

…you came this close to creating a group called Mommas Against Drunk Commas. But, well, M-A-D-C.

…someone once described you as so organized, you probably filed your garbage. Nobody recycled back then. Just sayin.

…your child once said, “You like putting things in things.” And you put the container down.

…you want to write a book called “Life Is Filing.” Or maybe “How to Put Things In Things.”

…you think in spreadsheets.

…you dream in XML.

…your friend’s Facebook post grabs your interest not because of what’s going on in her life but because she filtered it to men and women in your area. How did she do that? You have to know.

…your friend’s tweet grabs your interest because the 1, 2, and 3 in the steps are images. How did he do that? You have to know.

…you willed Google into existence.

…you wonder whether to say that something “appears” on the screen or that it “is displayed” on the screen. You care about the answer. You care even more about the reasons for the answer.

…the celebrity you most want to meet is a tie between Will Shortz and Stephen Hawking.

…everyone in your workgroup met through Skype.

…you think of walking to the bathroom as exercise.

…you think that this list is too long and that it needs more subheadings. And metatags.

…you counted the number of items in this list to see if they total fifty.

…you believe that information is power.

…you think that you have the best job in the world.

What else? Add a suggestion or two in a comment.

Ron Kurtus cites this list here: Skills Required To Be a Technical Writer.

Last modified: July 15, 2014

187 thoughts on “You Know You’re a Technical Communicator When…

  1. … on reading this article you immediately go to a dictionary to see if “yelmp” is a real word:-).
    … you have multiple editions of CMOS and The Elements of Style in your bookcase.
    … you’re the only person at Intel who knows there’s more than one definition for the acronym CMOS.
    … you read over every message of any kind (email, twitter, IM, facebook, …) for typos and still worry when you type send.

  2. …someone throws a complicated piece of equipment your way, stating how impossible it is to use, and you not only figure it out, you point out the flaws in the instructions that impede others.

  3. …you ask an SME what an acronym stands for and what it means, and they look at you for a bit, then confess they don’t know — even though they’ve been using it for years. So you do some research, and then educate the SME on your findings. “Oh, right”, they say, knowingly.

    • You nailed it, Rich. “When you tell the SMEs what the acronyms stand for—and when it doesn’t even occur to you to spell out SME.”

  4. – you use initial caps even while texting even when driving
    – you watch a movie and appreciate how the film maker communicates his message and branding
    – you see a great new app but find that UI texts could have been much better
    – you notice a white space before a colon on almost all business cards that you get from anyone you meet

  5. …someone says 100 page editorial comments can be completed in 2 days (16hrs); wonder if is is a data entry or tech comm
    …feel to say come by to know the effort it takes to incorporate, but have to send a polite note to say estimated time of completion
    …justification comes saying we have accomplished same task in aeronautical industry and it works
    …negotiations hardly work and we start doing our best to meet the deadline

  6. … your personal emails almost always include bullet points, and quite often headings and tables.
    … even when you collaborate on projects, you never really manage to give up control of structuring the content.
    … you love working with other technical writers!

  7. …you make up drinking games involving variations on technical-communication-related job titles (like ‘technical writer’,’ information developer’, ‘technical information development engineer’, and so on).

    —the first thing you notice about a list of items in a sentence is whether there is a serial comma

    …you’re confused when your friends roll their eyes after you describe a new writing/editing/grammar book you’re reading as “fun” and “cool”.

  8. …Curmudgeonly, you ask why technical communicators use CMOS (the style guide for publishing academic content at the University of Chicago)?

    …Your kids or grandkids ask why you talk back to the radio or TV (correcting their grammar)

    • …you get the pleasure of hearing your grown children talk back to the radio or TV (correcting the grammar).

  9. … you checked Marcia’s formatting before writing your own reply.

    … you made sure you wrote your reply using parallel construction.

    … you were alarmed at the thought of other technical writers reading your reply to Marcia’s post.

    … you think, as you try to follow terrible instructions, about the cumulative lost time and its impact on productivity and happiness.

  10. When you not only read all the manuals that come with a product you purchase, but you examine them for style and content, then bring them in to share at the office like a shiny new toy.

  11. … the developer explains how the software works, and you promptly point out flaws in the design.

    … when someone confidently asserts that two spaces after a period is the “proper” way, you must take several deep breaths before you respond.

    … you proofread your tweets (and comments on blog posts) for typos.

  12. … you keep a secret list of the worst sentences ever written.

    … you can’t watch a movie without pointing out technical inaccuracies.

    …your favorite jokes are about misuse of the language.

  13. …before you buy anything, you check the documentation for accessibility, navigation, findability, clarity, conciseness, and completeness.
    …you troubleshoot all of your family’s technical difficulties and then document them on your blog.
    …you wonder about the user assistance available for Google Glasses.
    …you dream in XML.
    …you secretly consider yourself a superhero for bringing clear, efficiently assembled, targeted content to the world.
    …you taught your three-year old about homonyms.
    …you think that being a technical writer for Leonardo da Vinci would have been really awesome.
    …you edited this list for clarity and quality.

  14. …when at the age of five or six, while watching a sitcom, you hear what you think is the funniest joke you’ve ever heard, which turns out to be about a bad page break in a manual.

    Here’s the setup: The show was called “Pete and Gladys,” starring Henry Morgan (the colonel on M.A.S.H) and someone I can’t recall as Gladys. They are up on their roof trying to figure out why a vent has stopped working. Gladys is reading the owner’s manual out loud while Pete performs the steps. She reads a step about how one can look down into the vent and see, about an arm length’s down, that there is some particular part. She pauses while Pete peers down the vent, and then he inserts his arm and feels way down into the vent until he feels said part. She then turns the page and reads something like “WARNING! Do not insert arm into the vent as it can become stuck!” Of course, Pete’s arm is now stuck.

    I don’t recall what happened next, but I do recall thinking that the joke was hilarious. But it was *decades* later, well into my career as a technical communicator, that I realized why that joke was so funny: It was a bad page break separating the warning from the instruction. And that has made the joke all the richer for me all these years later.

  15. Love these!
    …you talk to your family using Technical English – and they don’t understand what you are saying.

  16. …you curse any application in which you can’t either

    edit the source of your content to ensure it’s structured correctly
    define style templates for consistency

    …you are more likely to type than press CTRL+B

  17. Everyone you know loves/hates sharing written content with you. If they need it edited, they love you. If they just want to chat, they hate you because they know you will edit it and talk about how to improve it, make it more readable, etc.

  18. You ask SMEs exactly how a particular function is supposed to work, and they answer, “We don’t know. No one ever asked before.”

  19. You see this Summit conference hotel menu option:

    “Organic fruits and bars — Local and regional fruit, organic health bars, assorted organic beverages 14”

    …and send this related comment via e-mail:

    “The Phoenix Convention Center needs a tech writer. Their menu (under each listing for the break packages) lists items as plurals (organic fruits and bars, etc.) Even if the price is a per person price (which they did not indicate in the copy) each listing makes statements like “an assortment of organic juices.” Even if you look at it as a per person price…based on the copy, one could assume that each person gets multiple drinks or multiple bars. Anyway, I find the copy very confusing (but it does make me hungry)!”

    So what was their translation of this menu option?

    The selection is $14 per person. You will get a quantity sufficient for one person (one bar, one organic juice, one piece of fruit) if you only order one of this selection. If you order 10 of this selection, you will get 10 of each item, and pay $140! That’s clear, right? P.S. This comment indicates why you shouldn’t ask me to comment on why I know I am a tech writer! (I’m an editor, too!)

  20. Upon receiving any Word document, you instinctively go to Styles to see if a reasonable style has been applied to every word while resisting the urge to remove all hard returns and re-format.

  21. * You have spotted typos in the advertising on a moving bus
    * You really, actually do RTFM
    * You collect user documentation instead of recycling it

  22. You have a folder of instructions for your household appliances that you have rewritten from the versions that came with the products. Or at least notes on all the shipped instructions.

  23. … your instructions to the baby sitter include cross references.

    … you look at things to cut out of your kid’s book report, just to cut down on translation costs.

  24. Every conversation includes a step, a step result, and a return on investment applicable to the real world. Oh, oh… and a picture and an interactive video (since while I think I’m making perfect sense, all I get back is a blank stare).

  25. – You replace a word in a text message if you think you might be spelling it incorrectly.

    – Use of the oxford comma has strained friendships.

    – Where to place “only” induces/increases medication consumption.

    – You write “users” to use “their” and avoid “her or his” etc…

    – The non-parallel structure of this bullet list bugs you.

  26. … when you move, you print labels for the boxes instead of using a sharpie like everyone else (courtesy of John Hedtke, who is doing exactly that today).

    P.S. Nice job taking this thread viral, Marcia.

    • Or when you print labels for everything. Your African violets, your spoons, your label makers. And the labels are color-coded. With metatags.

      It’s been a hoot crowdsourcing with y’all. How long can we keep the wave going?

  27. …you’re considering the purchase of a consumer item, and your brand choice is influenced by “Well, for -that- company, I know the writer who does the manuals.”

    …your with friends who see something really cool (maybe on TV, maybe passing by) and you say “Yeah, I wrote the manuals for that.”

  28. … when everyone you know saves the Engrish (yes, Engrish) assembly instrux and DFUs from the things they buy that are made in China, gifting them to you, noting they think you will “get a kick out of it.”

  29. … you have ever contemplated flying to Sweden to “exchange wordless instructions with” the technical illustrators of Ikea.

  30. When the other kids were on the playground, you and a nerdy friend were inside cracking each other up, one reading aloud a word in the dictionary, the other reciting the definition of a different word.

  31. – You read the help information first after installing a new software.

    – You are the SME for the Tech team when it comes formatting Word documents, creating a Word template, updating TOC etc.

    – You curse the person who creates test/junk data in the application.

    – You wonder why some features or workflow in the application is made unnecessarily complex.

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  34. … You have a lot of friends who hate when you make corrections in their sentences.
    … You analyze a lot of advertisements when you watch TV (and your spouse is either shocked or just disgusted over your brainy, analytical attitude).
    … You have at least one relative who’s said: “If I were as intelligent as you, I were at some other place.”
    … You wonder how people tolerate imperfection that easily. But, in the next moment, you admire the balance brought by the nature.
    … You’re mother knows that you will look at the ingredients before you buy stuff.
    … You have at least one friend who thinks you are “cool”, and different, but hates you when you pick on them.
    … You read every sentence in the terms and conditions section when you buy stuff.

  35. You started today at 5 a.m. (as I did) revisiting the TOC for the extended family cookbook and deciding on the best way to chunk the 100 recipes, the best heading for each category, the best sequence within a category, and the snappiest title for the book. This labor of love will be distributed at our family’s annual summer gathering.

      • A technical communicator cringes when her work is not perfect. My comment above should have read, “I started today…” Alas, our work is never done.

      • Judy, I think your original phrasing worked just fine. You were completing the sentence, following the format. Your opening “you” had an invisible ellipsis in front of it. (You’re still right that our work is never done.)

  36. * Your answer to everything is “it depends”

    * You curse every time you hear “Kadov tags”

    * You have debated one space or two after periods (full stops)

    * You notice if bulleted lists consistently end with or without periods

    * Your position was ever called a “necessary evil”

    * You’ve been told by a SME that “they don’t need to know that”

  37. … you have two kinds of colored pens for editing and proofreading depending on your audience, either red or purple.

    … you insist that all Word documents contain styles.

    … you Google everything before training someone how to do a specific task in Microsoft Office, thus making you look confident.

    … you start editing manuals on ifixit.com during your free time.

  38. In an effort to save your family from the stress of organising xmas, you suggest getting everyone to collaborate via Google docs. Knowing you are the only one in the family who will read Help documentation, you write your own user manual for the family – disguised as a group email.
    When they still won’t come onboard you wonder if you didn’t write a good enough doc, so you create a screencast as well…

  39. If you could just get that structure of the documentation correct, everything would flow. You just know it would.

    You think about the users and what they need to know about your product. And then you think about what the least amount of information they need to know is.

    You Skype coworkers for editing opinions. And you have extended conversations about editing points. This does not seem like an odd waste of time.

    You get excited making the nomenclature in the documentation match the nomenclature in the UI.

    You get a secret high out of making things consistent.

    You enjoy making complex geeky ideas simple. The simpler the better.

    You surreptitiously Google for answers rather than search companies’ documentation. And then you feel like a traitor to fellow technical communicators.

    You comment out your name at the end of emails.

    You find yourself waffling between different shades of the company’s branded colors in the diagrams in your documentation.

    When you go out to dinner, you quickly notice all of the typos in the restaurant’s menu.

    You have strong preferences: serif or sans-serif. On occasion, you many even argue about the type of serif or sans-serif font that should be used.

    You try to narrow down in as few words as possible in terms that a layperson would understand the answer to: what do you do for a living?

    When others create step-by-step guides, you stumble across the necessary bits that they omitted which impacts the user.

    You have a strong preference for capitalizing or not capitalizing the second word in a hyphenated term that uses the title case.

  40. As a kid you liked to get in trouble in school because it meant you got to write a sentence 100 times….without any contractions. “I will not draw on the chalkboard during math.”

  41. You sort those chocolate candy wrappers with sayings on them into categories by clarity, accuracy, and relevance.

  42. You stand in Powell’s City of Books, look over the monthly newsletter of events, and think to yourself – “I could do a better job of this.” And then you take the copy home and create your own version, complete with calendar, color, pictures, and white space.

  43. … you reflexively correct your 4-year-old on the correct use of “lay” vs. “lie” and he takes it in stride.
    … you have to reassure your friends that they don’t have to feel embarrassed sending things to you because you don’t read friends’ emails as an editor.
    … you make a conscious effort to understand the trends in how people post on Facebook and Twitter and can recount the history of the status update, from “Emily is … at work” to “Emily is … [your input here]” to an open field in which people still wrote things in third person to an open field where people just write their thoughts.

    • Oh, and: … you use run-ons in social media groups on purpose to sound like a normal person.
      … you know how to use i.e. and e.g. correctly and know you are on a very small island of people who do, yet you still care.

      • Nooooo, Emily, say it ain’t so on the run-ons! (Funny, though.) As for i.e. and e.g., oh yeah.

    • Lucky kid. As for the friends, I know what you mean. As for Facebook, I lost track of that last part of the evolution. Good eye.

  44. -you laugh with glee after receiving (and while reading!) “The Book of Unnecessary Quotation marks” for Christmas.

  45. You haven’t driven past a billboard in 15 years without analyzing the sentence structure, scoffing at the grammar, and mentally fixing everything.

    On the first day of your new job, you have a conversation that starts with, “When you guys lay me off …”

    You have had this conversation with yourself: “Got milk?” It really ought to be “Have you got milk?” Otherwise, it’s not a complete sentence. Still, that’s a grammar error, not to mention really clunky, so “Do you have milk?” would be the way to go. And if we’re really trying to be concise, I would go with “Have you milk?” But talk about awkward! What is this, 1940 London? Let’s back up and stick with “Do you have milk?” I can’t believe some ad exec got paid a gazillion dollars to come up with “Got milk?” Geez.

  46. You convey a user instruction with as few of words as possible and, better yet, the user actually understands and can accurately follow the instruction.

    Years ago, I was tasked with writing a manufacturing floor instruction manual for illiterate users. After many, many iterations and a lot of editing, I developed an illustration only, no words, instruction manual. My most rewarding writing project to date.

    • Paulette, What a project that must have been. I feel the same way about some wordless instructions I once created with a graphic artist and illustrator. Took longer than writing out the steps in words, but saved the company a pile of money that they would have otherwise spent on translation.

  47. … including properly formatted footnotes … in emails and text messages.

    … being known company-wide as someone who puts footnotes … in emails and text messages.

    … spotting the single word on a page that is in 8pt Helvetica instead of the 9pt Gill Sans that every other word is in. Spotting that in fractions of a second while not noticing the truck about to hit you because you are proofing while walking across the street.

    … refusing to acknowledge “lists” with only one item.

    … reciting the difference between i.e. and e.g. is easier than remembering your children’s names.

    And….

    … being incapable — literally incapable — of enjoying a concert because the program has the section headings _underneath_ the related content. E.g.,
    ———————————————————————–
    XYZ Middle-school Band Concert

    Song 1 ……… Composer Name
    Song 2 ……… Composer Name
    Song 3 ……… Composer Name
    +++ The Beginning Band +++

    Song 1 ……… Composer Name
    Song 2 ……… Composer Name
    Song 3 ……… Composer Name
    +++ The Advanced Band +++

    Thanks for attending the show!
    ——————————————
    I am pretty sure this should be a capital offense. 🙂

    Cheers,
    Scott

    • Scott,
      I’m not sure what you mean.*
      *Okay, I know what you mean all too well. Note to self: when editing, watch out for trucks.**
      **Do you ever put footnotes on footnotes?***
      ***Thanks for all these terrific additions to the list.

  48. I thought of a new one recently:

    You stay at a lovely Airbnb with a really lovely host but, during the stay, repeatedly have to ask “where is the…” or “how does the work?”

    After leaving you complete the guest feedback form, politely informing them of the missing information that would’ve been handy in the guest book… and you also offer to rewrite it for them since you now know where *everything* is and how everything works.

    Also, on the off chance they might accept, you’ve already taken pictures of all their appliances so you can annotate them with instructions for the new guide. (But you don’t mention that in the email because, wow, that’s just really creepy.)

    • Carlee,
      Will you come to our Airbnb place and do this for our future guests? You may have invented a whole new career concept. Brilliant.

  49. As a kid, your favorite Saturday morning T.V. show was “School House Rock” so you could sing the Conjunction, Junction song. As an adult, you still know all the words, and you even bought the DVD Anniversary Edition.

  50. As we travel down memory lane, here’s a Web link to the Conjunction Junction video/song:

    https://video.search.yahoo.com/video/play;_ylt=A0LEV7jcsPRUIxYAmz0lnIlQ;_ylu=X3oDMTB0N25ndmVnBHNlYwNzYwRjb2xvA2JmMQR2dGlkA1lIUzAwNF8x?p=school+house+rock+conjunction&tnr=21&vid=81CB901872D71584554881CB901872D715845548&l=213&turl=http%3A%2F%2Fts2.mm.bing.net%2Fth%3Fid%3DUN.607989407628986281%26pid%3D15.1&sigi=11rvr2hei&rurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DODGA7ssL-6g&sigr=11b53q8bp&tt=b&tit=Conjunction+Junction….Best+School+House+Rock&sigt=11ekecb0i&back=https%3A%2F%2Fsearch.yahoo.com%2Fyhs%2Fsearch%3Fp%3Dschool%2Bhouse%2Brock%2Bconjunction%26ei%3DUTF-8%26hsimp%3Dyhs-004%26hspart%3Dmozilla&sigb=1395voajm&hspart=mozilla&hsimp=yhs-004

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  52. …when you take a picture of a misspelt signboard and you are delighted to share it with fellow writers.

    …when you spot an incorrect numbering on a numbered list.

    …when you easily spot the difference in font types/sizes

    …You know when to use setup vs set up.

    …you use consistent words in your documents.

    …You are consistent in ending the bulleted lists with or without periods

    …you google for synonyms to convey the right meaning.

    …when you do not end sentences with prepositions.

    …when you cringe at words such as irregardless, narrow-down the search,

    …when you suggest UI label changes

    …You know when to use enter/select/click

    ..when you suggest to the developers that the validation and alerts must be proactive instead of reactive

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